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MAKING A MARK: Teen titleholder uses platform to spread sickle cell disease awareness

World Sickle Cell Day is Saturday-- the day after the Miss Virginia's Outstanding Teen competition. The two events have a special connection for Ayana Johnson.

SUFFOLK, Va. — 14-year-old Ayana Johnson is Miss Piedmont Region's Outstanding Teen, and outstanding she is.

Johnson is an honors student at Nansemond River High School in Suffolk, a classically trained violinist, and a competitive dancer.

But there's something more to Johnson's story--she was born with sickle cell disease. The red blood cell disorder can cause episodes of pain--something, she said, is all too familiar.

"I didn't have my first sickle cell crisis until I was five," said Johnson. "I didn't really understand what was going on, I didn't know how it worked, I didn't know why my body was feeling the way it was feeling."

But sickle cell hasn't slowed Johnson down. 

"I realized I was strong, not weak because of it," said Johnson. "And I wanted other people to realize that as well."

She's now working to educate and empower as many people as she can.

"I started doing work in my community, working with the Suffolk Sickle Cell Foundation, Inc.," said Johnson. "Now, I work with the American Red Cross doing blood donation, research about sickle cell."

Johnson said becoming Miss Virginia's Outstanding Teen would mean a greater platform to raise funds and spread awareness.

"If I give some sort of speech or I do some sort of appearance, I have people come up to me and say, 'That really touched me' or 'that motivated me to not be so afraid or feel so helpless having sickle cell'," said Johnson. "That's why the continuity of my work in the community is so important."

You can vote for Johnson to win the People's Choice Award at Miss Virginia's Outstanding Teen. It comes with a $500 scholarship, and each vote is 99 cents. Voting ends at 10 p.m. on Thursday, June 17. Cast your vote here

The Miss Virginia's Outstanding Teen competition is Friday, June 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Berglund Center in Roanoke, VA. Tickets for the live stream are $20. You can purchase them here